Dr. Wharton Interview
The Harlem Times conducted an exclusive interview with Dr. Clifton Wharton on his new book, Privilege and Prejudice, the Life of a Black Pioneer. The discussion focuses on his career in education, his family life, and what Dr. Wharton thinks about the current state of education in America today.
So Dr. Wharton, can you tell us a bit about yourself, family, and history…
A: Sure. Well, one of the things that I have in my autobiography is that I go back in terms of my family history which I think is not atypical in the sense that it is a very common one of Black ancestors in the United States. I think certain white people don’t really understand much about it. They always assume that there was slavery, period.
In my case, for example, I mention in the book that my great-great-great-great grandfather was a free Negro thirty years before the Emancipation Proclamation, and many of his descendants were very successful individuals. They were doctors, lawyers, etc. He had a very outstanding set of his progeny. The other thing, of course, in terms of that is there also was a great mixture with the Caucasians. So that, for example, in my case, my Caucasian great-grandfather was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Confederate Army and he also was a Harvard Law School graduate and a member of the state legislature in Virginia.
I could go on about that, but one of the things which I think many people don’t realize is that when the first slaves landed in the United States in 1619 and during the rest of the period of slavery, there were individuals who came from different African nation tribes. They were broken up; they were families who were broken up. And so our people were not just allowed to migrate on their own with their families or their tribal groups; they were just treated as though they were exchangeable.
But the other thing is that there was a tremendous amount of racial mixture which most people don’t really talk about a great deal. For me, it’s a reality and something that is important. But having said that, in terms of my own direct family, there have always been a certain number of very high Black achievers. Not long ago at one of my book tour interviews, I had an interview and then had audience questions.
There was a question that came from an individual at the meeting who said, How did Jackie Robinson influence you? And I smiled and I said he didn’t influence me at all! I said my hero was my father – who was the first black to pass the Foreign Service exam in 1923. I said there was 20 years before the next black passed the FS exam. My father eventually became a U.S. ambassador and I said that is my history.
Moreover, for example, most people don’t know this, but Representative Charlie Rangel is my cousin. His mother was a Wharton and his great-grandfather was the younger brother of my great-grandmother. So it is a family which has deep roots in the country, that had a long history in the country and had individuals who had been successful.
Now coming forward, my father was a diplomat. I spent most of my early years abroad. And it was not until we came back to the U.S. on home leave when I was in the 4th grade in Boston for a brief period that I first encountered racism. Because we were living in Spain, I was playing with children who looked just like me because there had been significant Moorish addition to the Spanish race and culture. But I had never experienced racism. In the book, I describe what it was like to be confronted by a fellow student in the classroom.
This happened because when I was tested, I had 7th grade history and 8th grade reading even though I was supposed to be in the 4th grade. I could read very well – I read very early, my mother tutored me. And the teacher (in an attempt to put me at ease with the other students), whenever a student made a mistake reading in class she would ask me to correct him. And one of these students was very angry because I could read so much better than he could. So during recess he came up to me and he said, You may think you are smart, but you ain’t nothing but an N word. I didn’t know what the word was.
And when I came home and asked my mother, she said – she had told me before I went to school, Don’t use any words that you don’t know and ask me whether you should use them or not. Well, I came home and had every curse word imaginable. But one of the words was this N word. And my mother said – ah, she said, That is the word where people want to put you in a box to make you lesser. Don’t ever let anybody put you in a box. Be proud of who you are and what you are.
My mother during the years abroad when she was tutoring me with a correspondence course, she always introduced a great deal of black history. She mentioned the great Black leaders, like DuBois, Bethune and Frederick Douglas, plus she also mentioned my father in the process. So to me, black history was an important part of my upbringing. But here I was in Boston encountering racism.
If you fast forward I am frequently asked did I set out to be a black pioneer and the answer is no. I did not. I at first wanted to be a diplomat like my father, but I changed my mind. When I was getting my masters degree after Harvard in Washington, D.C., I was the first black admitted to the School of Advanced and National Studies of Johns Hopkins [SAIS].
Washington was segregated at the time and I discovered many years later that there was a great deal of controversy over my being admitted. Because there were some members of the faculty who objected to my being admitted even though I was an honors graduate of Harvard majoring in diplomatic history, having a Foreign Service Scholarship, as well as the GI Bill, and whose father was a diplomat.
So here I was in that environment where for several months some of the students would not sit down and eat with me, wouldn’t talk to me. I had other experiences which I can describe. But for my career I decided, for a variety of reasons, that I wanted to try the field of foreign technical assistance because the commencement speaker at Harvard when I graduated had been General George Marshall, who was then Secretary of State when he announced the Marshall Plan. And I was fascinated by that.
And a year later they had the Point Four program to provide assistance to developing countries as well. I said I thought this was a very interesting part of what might become an important part of foreign policy and diplomacy. My father said well – you are young yet, you can still become a diplomat later. That is how I worked in my first job with Nelson Rockefeller, in one of his organizations here in New York.
When I was at Harvard I was the first black on the radio station. Next the first black MA student at SAIS Hopkins. It was not a case of where I deliberately set out to do that; it was what happened. I had the opportunity to go and I did it. When I was at SAIS I did my best to do as well as I could because I knew hopefully other Blacks could follow.
After working with Nelson Rockefeller’s AIA for five years, I decided that – I was married by that time – but I decided that I really needed additional education if I was going to stay in the technical assistance or economic field. My AIA mentors, my superiors who were wonderful people, recommended that I go for a doctorate in economics.
I ended up studying at the University of Chicago and working for the Chairman of the Department of Economics, Theodore Schultz, who later became a Nobel Laureate. He was undertaking a major research project on technical assistance in all of Latin America. Well, I had just been working on development in Latin America so Schultz hired me. I worked for four years as his research assistant which was a great experience.
One of the members of the mission was an individual who had gotten his PhD at Chicago, and had been an agricultural missionary in India for many years, very successful. And he was hired by John D. Rockefeller III to head up a new program in Asia on development of agriculture and he wanted me to come to work with him. So I left and came, finished my doctorate, got my degree and that’s how I became a member of the Agricultural Development Council Inc. (ADC), and we moved to Asia.
I worked for John D. Rockefeller III for thirteen years, six of them were in Southeast Asia where I covered Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. And it was a very exciting experience for me. I taught, I made grants, gave fellowships to people to get their Ph.d’s in the U.S. At ADC I was really part of what I referred to as an extended academic faculty because there were other foundation staff similar to me in different countries in the region. We also had visiting professors and they taught regularly for two years. We were there for six years and I also taught at the University of Malaya. I did research and published on everything from international trade to subsistence agriculture.
Now then I came back to the states to run a program which was involved in trying to provide experience of foreign research to American faculty who had not ever worked abroad. There was a shortage of them, so I won’t describe the program other than to say that as a result, I had to run workshops and seminars at different universities all over the United States. So I got to know a lot of people in the higher education field. Many of them were in my discipline who had seen the research that I had done, the published work.
And then after a few years, I began to get inquiries – would you like to be considered for a chairmanship of a department or would you like to be considered for a deanship. Then a couple came along which were for university presidencies which I had never thought of. At that point I was vice president of ADC, and I was expected to become the next president. I knew that and everybody did. I never thought about going into higher education by becoming a university president.
I will stop here because one of the things which has come out from many of the interviews that I have had on the book is people ask me is there any consistency in my different fields of work. And I have concluded that it was because I feel very strongly about investment in human capital. The work I did in Latin America was investing in the education and capital of farmers to help them improve. I go to Asia, what am I doing? I am working in higher education, as well as government, and working on building larger numbers of people trained in these development fields. So I come back to the United States so what better canvas to invest in human capital than to be president of a university? So along came Michigan State. Now at that point –
Q: I am sorry, sir. Your philosophy concerning higher education – can you expound on this?
A: The investment in higher education is without a doubt one of the most powerful factors in human development, as well as their own personal development. In other words, an individual acquires knowledge and skills and competencies which is are theirs and cannot be taken away from them. Once it is in you, in your head, it’s yours. It doesn’t make any difference whether they like you – you’ve got it there, you know what you are doing. And it multiplies the effectiveness of the individual in terms of whatever it is, their jobs, their livelihoods, etc. But that human capital is the most important, one of the most important factors in human development in any country.
And I will come back to that later because it is one of the reasons why I have such great concern about the deficiencies of numbers of minorities and rural people in higher education today.
Now at Michigan State I was 42 years old. I had never run a university before. I was elected by a five to three vote. There was a lot of politics about this. Three trustees voted against my presidency. They voted against everything I wanted to do as long as they were on that board every single month. And I had to be able to work for that university as much as I could.
I will tell you this story. When I was elected, first and foremost, it was electric because I was the first black to be head of a major research university. I was swamped. My office here in New York, had never less than three, four television crews coming after me. I had headlines in the newspapers across the United States, the front page of The New York Times. Before that event some called me the quiet pioneer. This time I was no longer below the radar.
When I was elected, I decided I would visit with the trustees before I arrived officially. And I said to each trustee, I would like to know what you think is the most important things that we could do for the excellence of the university. The three trustees who voted against me would only meet with me together.
Q: I’m sorry?
A: They would only meet with me together. They would not meet separately. They met with me for well over an hour and a half and I have never in my life heard such cursing except when I was at Tuskegee about attacking me. Oh, terribly, terribly – and these are my trustees. And they said to me – Don’t unpack, you will be gone by December after the elections. I said, Well, that may be, but I will promise you this, as long as I am president, I am going to do the best that I can for this university. I outlasted all three of them.
At every board meeting the three always had something that they were deviously trying to do to get rid of me. That was in addition to my dealing with student riots, demonstrations of 3,000 and 4,000 students. My wife and I alone, the two of us, would stand in front of these mobs and talk. It was not easy. During the demonstrations I averaged four hours sleep a night. My weight went down to 150. There were nights when I didn’t get to bed. It was very tough, very tough.
But I got through it. I brought the university through it and we never closed it down. I had to deal with that, I also had to deal with problems of minority students and regular students. I have all of that in my book. I ended up where by the time I had the university on an even keel, I had tremendous support from all of the members of the university.
I developed an special approach for minority admissions. Some of the students could say, We want a quota, we want numbers. I said we are not going to admit minorities and let them fail which is what was happening, a revolving door in many other schools and universities. Just to get the numbers up they would enroll large numbers and then they would flunk out. I said no, we should admit and help them to succeed, never mind about goal numbers.
We developed a technique where the students were tested and shown to be deficient in certain areas would come to campus in the summer before their freshman year and take special courses and get ready. The graduation rate for those students who were special admits, at the end had the exact same graduation rate as the other students and we had the largest number of minority students in the United States. But I never said I’ve got goal numbers. I believed in doing the job and getting it done right so that they graduated.
Q: What did you do exactly, what were some of the processes?
A: At Michigan State, all freshmen are tested because high schools differ in their qualities. And the tests would identify freshman student weaknesses. Are they weak in math? Are they weak in English? If so, you take this remedial course. These young students, particularly minority and some of the rural kids, they needed special help. So I said let’s get them acculturated and prepared beforehand. So these students would come before the beginning of the fall of freshman year; they would come in the summer.
Q: Like EOF, is it similar to that, like the EOF programs in schools?
A: I don’t know.
Q: They come – students come in the summer and then they go into the regular year.
A: I was doing this back in the 70’s, you see. And what happened was I created a special provost position to lead the program, a brilliant Black who was a professor of chemistry and had done a sensational job in getting blacks into chemistry. The new special program was designed to help and get these special students on track, not because they didn’t have the intelligence, but they didn’t have the background and training and experience to be able to succeed.
Sure enough they ended up with graduation rates exactly the same as the regular students. The interesting thing is that when I arrived at MSU I knew that there were some people that said, he is going to open the doors and let everybody in and spoil our university. That’s not what I did, I made it better, and more diverse as well? So it was my way of approaching this issue.
How did I do that? I created a special university commission on admissions with about 30 people from all over the state, including university people, to give me recommendations of what we should do and they came up with these ideas and approaches.
I mention this approach only because for me the issue always has been investing in the individual, getting their human capital increased. It is not for my ego and saying after – look what I did. No. It is – those are the outcomes of what you are trying to do, what they benefit from or don’t benefit from. My wife and I were there at MSU for eight years. Five years after we left, the university named the new performing arts center for the two of us.
It is because both my wife had activities at the university and I had helped at the university. It was an incredible recognition of what we had done. A side note, one time, we went back for the presidential debates, which were held there when Clinton was first elected. And I didn’t want to go and my wife said, Come on, you’ve got to go, it is at the Wharton Center. Okay, so we go. And our name is in huge letters on the building. There was a banner for the presidential debate above our names.
As we walk up to the front door the local press recognized us, so they stopped us and started taking pictures of the two of us. Some students were walking by and they stopped. So after the press left the students came over and they ask, Are you…?? pointing to our name on the building. And I said, Yes. They replied, We thought you were dead! You don’t name a building for somebody who is alive.
The interesting thing is that it was a period when my wife and I both did what we could to pursue the greater excellence of the university in many, many fields – I could go into long detail and I won’t.
Then came the offer to head up the State University of New York with its 64 campuses, the largest university system in the country. The SUNY trustees persuaded me that they needed to have me take over. The system was having many difficulties. If you like, I can go through all of the things I did there. For example, I visited all 64 campuses in ten months, the first ten months. By the time I finished, I knew exactly what the problems were and I knew the campuses.
Q: What were some of the main problems at that time?
A: It varied, depending on the system. The medical schools were greatly over budget. The community colleges were having difficulty with local financing. The four year campuses, some of them were doing well, some of them were not. It varied. One of the things that is important from a management standpoint, an administrative standpoint, is recognizing the variety of issues that you have to deal with. It’s not just single issues.
One of them in this case was I recognized that the SUNY system was over-regulated. You could not transfer dollars between budget categories. If you had surplus funds in the library fund, you couldn’t transfer it to some emergency dealing with a building repair. You had to get multiple approvals. And by the time approvals came through, it was a new academic year and the funds were gone. I mean, it was awful – very, very, very regulated. And I have a lot of examples in my book about this.
I recognized that the system was so tightly controlled by the budget office of the governor, that it would be very difficult to change it right away. So I waited until I knew I could get the public power and the backing to do this. Then I created a special committee made up of leading figures, more than two-thirds of them I had not known. We had our first meeting and it was co-chaired by the then head of Time and the president of Ohio State. At the meeting and I said, I am so glad that you are going to meet and help us. They responded, What do we do? I said, I am not going to tell you. I want each one of you to select two to three campuses. We will have someone go with you and you can visit the campuses and see what it is like. So they said, Well, give us an agenda. I refused.
They all went and visited the campuses. They came back and they laughingly said, You knew what we were going to see! They reported that the system governance regulation is incredible. They run this place like they run the prisons – this is terrible. You can’t run a university that way. And they just hit it off. I knew what they would find – and these were not just academics. These were people in business, in government and they were horrified. But I knew.
Their report was approved by the SUNY board and submitted to the governor and his people. So we worked out a way of getting exactly the same thing. After considerable negotiation with the Governor, and the State legislature, we eventually got the legislation we needed. In a way I liberated the university. At SUNY they still talk about this development.
These changes were done to give the campuses the ability to perform their mission. Some of the rules and regulations had no relationship to conducting and improving SUNY’S mission. For example, the Budget division had one regulation for a period when any out of state travel by a faculty member had to be approved by the director of the budget. Can you imagine this? This rule involved thousands of professors.
The rule was that a professor could only go out of state if they were going to give a paper, but in state they can. So a professor could go from Long Island to Buffalo and that is okay, that is in state. But to go from Buffalo to Chicago – oh no, you can’t do that. It didn’t make sense. What the regulators didn’t realize was that much of the time they are recruiting faculty.
Fortunately, I had a great board. You could never tell if Republicans and Democrats were on it. And we could have continued at SUNY easily.
But another opportunity arose involving the largest pension fund in the United States, which was the primarily for people in academe. TIAA-CREF was having serious difficulty. And so they did a search and they were interested in getting somebody who could come in and help. They previously had always had appointed a chairman and CEO from inside. Andrew Brimmer, he was the first Black governor of the Federal Reserve Bank and I knew Andy very well.
Andy Brimmer was on the board of TIAA-CREF and they brought up names of possible candidates and he said, have you ever thought about Clif Wharton? And there were at least seven people on that board who already knew me. So they interviewed me and they elected me chairman and CEO.
There again, my pioneering appointment attracted a lot of attention and a lot of awards. One of my awards here in New York was given to leading Black figures Leon Sullivan, Leontyne Price, and myself. And I said, You know, it is great to be honored as the first black CEO of a Fortune 500 company, I want to see some threes, fours and fives. I was reminded of that recently by some others who have followed me since.
The problem situation at TIAA involved a company, where you could only get a report on retirement funds once a year. You only had two investment choices, stocks or bonds. You could never get your money out once you put it in except as an annuity. And the customers were up in arms because they were besieged by competing mutual funds, who wanted to get part of our big pool of money.
I created a study group of the board along with our key officers and we worked out a new approach of how to do this and to free up the institution. And it was fascinating because I had been a director of Equitable Life Insurance Company and TIAA is an insurance company, so I knew a great deal about the industry. Also I had been on corporate boards, so I knew exactly what corporations do, how they operate. I will give you a couple of examples. When I arrived I checked, as one does, with the human resource people. We had a 26 percent turnover rate.. That means that a quarter of your employee population changes every year.
Q: What year was this?
A: That was 1987.
A: Yes. So the turnover rate – okay. So in keeping with my shipboard tours…let me explain. When I was a child, every ship I went on I always made a whole tour of the whole ship , every ship, top to bottom – to the bridge, down to the engine room…they let me because I was a little kid. And it’s like visiting 64 SUNY campuses, that was also my shipboard tour. At TIAA we owned three buildings. I said I want to visit every single floor in all three buildings; it took two days, and I met every employee.
Q: How many employees were there?
A: I don’t remember now. When I finished, I said to the manager, I said I bet I can tell you where we have the highest turnover rates and I gave him the names. He said you are right, how did you know? I said I wouldn’t want to work here. It was crowded, dark, dismal. Why would you want to come to work here?
So I went to the board and I said look, without changing the building and rebuilding budgets, I want your permission to change the buildings unit by unit. Move units that work closely to each other to be closer etc- they were all over the place. And every time a unit was remodeled the turnover numbers dropped, each time.
By the time I finished, I forget, but the turnover was like 2 percent. Now what is the center focus in this case? The people, the people who are in touch with the customers. People want when they call about an issue or a problem, they want Paul or they want John. They don’t want to call and somebody said – oh, John has left here. It is an issue of how do you manage the structure and the people. Because it is not the buildings only, it is the people, and how people respond.
So I was at TIAA-CREF for six years and I doubled the assets. And we freed up so policyholders could take their money out. There was a great deal of concern about my doing that because the old tradition was that the faculty don’t know how to invest their money. And they would lose their money and then they will say you cut this program. I said I don’t believe that.
I said I believe that the research that showed that we had very high customer satisfaction was true, but I also believed that people wanted the option to be able to take it out if they needed it. Not that they wanted to, but they wanted to have the option. So they went along with me. So we did it.
I don’t remember the exact number, but the net outflow over a two year period was less than two-tenths of one percent. When I left, they named the TIAA auditorium for me. Just like in SUNY, they named a building for the two of us in Albany.
But the point is such recognition is not the reason we do these things. For example, at TIAA what were the human capital dimensions of my role? It is the fact that the faculty who do the teaching and making the investment in human capital are happier and satisfied. After that TIAA I went to the State Department and that is another story. But I will stop now – I have talked too much.
Q: No, it is fascinating. I am just interested in how did you get to that philosophy of developing human capital and efficiencies –
A: Probably from Professor Schultz. He wrote about it, he talked about it. I did research in it.
Q: Professor Schultz from –
A: Chicago. I was his research assistant for four years. I have always had excellent mentors, if you want to use that word. But they never called themselves that. I had great relationships with him and also with Art Mosher who headed ADC [Agricultural Development Council Inc.].
But the important thing about human capital is a lot of the research that I did showed that the return on the investment in human capital is not just earned by the person, such as you get a better salary. There is a component which is not gained by the individual and that component is where society benefits, it is a residual. That’s where society benefits. So that there is a two dimensional return, to the person and to society.
So when I say we need more investment in human capital, it is because I know that not only would it improve the earning capacity and the contribution of the individuals, it also will improve the benefit to society. Now let’s go to the present. One of the comments that I have made in the book which probably has attracted the most attention is a quote from a colleague of mine who was then the chancellor of the University of Maryland, Brit Kirwan.
He cited research where it showed that, if you are a boy or girl from a top tier quartile of income family, if your family is in the top quartile, those children have an 85 percent likelihood of going to college. If you are in the bottom income quartile, you know what it is? 8 percent.
I point out that that 8 percent when you look at it involves a lot of minorities, it’s also a lot of rural people. And you say to yourself, this group could be major contributors to the development of the country in the future and you are missing it. You can argue that it’s noble or ethical or moral to not prevent them from getting to school and encouraging them, but economically, it is an economic disaster to allow that waste of possible future investment in that human capital.
Q: When you say rural, how do you define this?
A: Farm people, they don’t go – they are a lot of Trump people. They are out there. And they don’t go and they don’t think it is important. But here they are. And you say to yourself, when you have 85 percent in the top and 8 percent in the bottom, what are you doing, what kind of priorities do you have?
Now having said that, one of the other problems is that if you look at the funding of higher education, public and private, particularly in the public sector, the level of support from the state and federal government to public universities has dropped precipitously.
Q: Across the country?
A: Yes. When I was at Michigan State, which was a long time ago, one-third of the cost was met by student tuition, two-thirds was by state and federal. You know what it is now? Flipped. That is where the increased burden comes on tuition. Why? Because higher education has lost a priority slot in the thinking on budgeting and funding in our country.
You look at the amount of money that we spend, let’s say on military or any one of these categories. I have given a speech on the most serious impact of the under-funding. I learned in my research with subsistence farmers that you never eat your seed corn. What that means is if you want to plant next year, you better have the seed. If you eat your seed corn, you don’t have it. And I said we in higher education are eating our seed corn. And it’s the most incredible thing that nobody is pointing this out.
The point is that there is a problem with the prioritization given to the absolutely critical area of investing in human capital in the United States. Okay, I will stop.
Q: So we are eating our seed corn.
Q: Do you see the possibility of a change in that area?
A: Oh, sure. But you know, the public has to recognize it. Where does the notion come from, the notion that denies such a thing as a scientific research methodology or scientific findings are in disrepute with many people in the United States. I mean, they go around denying climate warming. They argue – Oh no, no, it is just cyclical. And they don’t understand what science has shown. But they don’t like the answer because accepting means doing something about it which involves affecting different industries, different people’s livelihoods and jobs.
The point is that you have a situation where there’s a questioning of the value of knowledge. And remember, the rejection is often anti-elite. And who is the elite? Often they are thought to be those who get a college degree. So they want you the lesser folk to go and get technical skills. Well, up to a point this is true, because many of the new available jobs, require skills that are technical or computer based. Many of the old manufacturing jobs have been reduced.
Q: Lost to robotics.
A: Yes. As you know, I was on the Ford Motor Company board for 24 years and we regularly would visit factories. I can tell you in that 24 years I would go to a factory the first year, there were workers all over the place. In the last year I was there, to look around you would say – where are the people? Machines. Yes, technology has really taken over- but what are the new skills required? The level of skill demand has grown for certain areas, but not totally. One of the aspects of a good solid education is a set of flexibilities. Being useful in multiple areas.
There is a story in my book about when I went for my first job interview at the Rockefellers. I was 21 getting my master=s degree and a SAIS professor recommended me. He asked, Have you ever thought about going to work for Nelson Rockefeller in this field of technical assistance? I had already been interviewed by the CIA and Esso oil company and that is another story. All my interviewers said the same thing, You wouldn’t be happy with us. I know what that euphemism meant.
By the way, many years later the then CEO of ESSO was a good friend and one day he said I want you to come on my board. I said no, because I was on the Ford board which would have been a conflict. I told him the story of my interview, and he was aghast. But when I came to the Rockefellers to be interviewed, and the interviewer said, I understand that you are looking for a job. When I said, Yes. He bluntly asked me, Well, what can you do? I sat there thinking here I was with my bachelor’s degree, getting my master’s and what can you do… So I said, Well, I can think. And he smiled and he said well, There will be a job here for you here in public relations, but I wouldn’t advise you to take it because you won’t have any promotion. When I thanked him and started to leave, he told me to sit down and talk. Eventually I got a job as an executive trainee.
That experience, that first year as an intern, I learned more about accounting, public relations, writing, etc., because I had to prepare papers for my boss to present to a board. I would go to a board meeting at age 21. The board of trustees headed by Mr. Rockefeller enabled me to watch them, and I learned how they worked, how they operated.
When I got to Michigan State, I decided to have something like the White House Fellows to provide
an experience similar to my trainee experience. I wanted to have one undergraduate student, one graduate student and one assistant faculty member to be my shadows for a whole academic year. I gave them projects to do, they went to all of my speeches, all of my meetings. And every other week they would meet with me privately with my top assistant and they could ask me any questions they wanted about what was happening. And I would give them an honest answer provided they maintained confidentiality. So they would say – well, when trustee so and so was attacking you on this, why did you say this, not this or what was your thinking about it?
So I was giving them my insight as to what it is like to be a university president. I had 13 persons over the years, as these presidential fellows. Four became university presidents, two became provosts, one is a distinguished faculty member at Michigan State. Right now the current president at the University of Virginia, a woman, she was one of my fellows, Terry Sullivan.
And you know what? That was my investment in human capital also. It was reflecting what I knew so that they would soak it up, they would learn.
At TIAA I developed a slightly similar program of rotating special assistants where they would have shorter periods because it is a corporation. And they would have projects, but they also had these meetings with me every week. The non-high level or mid-level people, the staff, the clerical staff, they heard about it and they wanted to have something like that too. So I put them into a separate program.
Out of the regular special assistants group, for example, the second highest person in the corporation who just retired was in the group. The experience gave them exposure to acquire the kind of knowledge which you can’t exactly teach. You have to watch what goes on. You have the sense of the dynamics of the situation and what the issues are, what the problems are, how you handle it and you learn, you learn a lot. But it’s not rocket science, but it is a chance of getting an exposure to it.
Q: How can you duplicate this on a mass level?
A: You don’t, And the problem is, as I say, it takes time. You have to be committed, you have to want to do it. Now the program that I started at TIAA is still going on.
Many of the students that I taught in Southeast Asia with whom I stayed in touch for years still remind me of things that I did or didn’t do in the class. It is all part of the process. But again, it is in investment in human capital. In my first class in Singapore the brightest student became an economic advisor, Lee Kwan Yu, the prime minister. Later he became provost at the university. Another one became director of the economic research center.
One became one of the highest ranking women in the oversees Chinese bank. Another student was an officer and member of the board. Another one was a treasurer for Singapore Airlines. I can do down the list – I know them all. And when we go to Singapore, they all get together for us – every time.
When I was at the Department of State my wife and I took a trip to Southeast Asia and the first stop was Thailand. And I have a rule of not doing any work in the first 24 hours because of the time lag. But the Ambassador wanted to have a big reception and I said no, – I can’t do anything. Finally I said okay to have a small dinner party.
At the dinner party he starts to introduce me to the people. Five Thai dignitaries were there, two of whom demonstrated exactly what I had been saying about our previous, prior relationships. One was president of the Kasetsart university and I had sent him to the states to get his master’s at Oregon State and his PhD at Purdue, also on ADC.
The other one was a deputy prime minister to whom I had given research grants. Jokingly the guests reminded me of my speech in 1962 to the agriculture and economic society of Thailand, dealing with the inelasticity of Southeast Asian, agricultural problem of perennial, mono-cultural perennial export dominance. They said my topic had precipitated a major internal policy debate in the Thai government. And after all of these years I couldn’t believe that they remembered the speech.
Again – it is not ego. These are impacts which are important provided that it is done out of the genuine concern of the issue and the problem and the people that are involved with it. What I was concerned about is that my research had shown, that in Thailand their exports all came from tree crops which were perennials. And therefore any fluctuation in their productivity, caused the income from foreign exchange to go up and down.
That’s what it was all about. I mean, the words are big, but that is what it was. And I knew that that was a vulnerability to the country. But as I say, this is where you have the opportunity to make the commitment and the investment in the human capital for that purpose.
Q: So it translated, your view of human capital translated to you being, while you were Deputy Secretary of State?
A: The Deputy Secretary, no. That was not anything to do with investment in human capital. The only time in my career. No, this was – I was Deputy Secretary at the time when I went out, but in visiting and saying, the ambassador wanted to invite these people to meet me and to get to know me. And I knew them from years before. That is what I am talking about. I am not talking about the investment, no. It is just that I had invested in them in terms of relationships and so on. And some of them I sent to the states to get their PhDs.
Q: How do you create thinking people and what should we do as a society to create thinking people?
A: Well, it is a matter of really, first – that’s a big issue. The big issue is that you have – you are asking a question about how can one bring about a change in not just the opportunity in the educational process, but also change the totality of the environment which affects the opportunity to learn.
And so if you are a child in a low income area which has violence, drugs, health problems, you name it and you say oh, just give them the education. That’s not realistic – it may work, but you have got to deal also with all of these other problems that are countervailing negatives. And that is another whole broad area of what needs to be done. And it is not that – I am not against it, I am just saying you have to recognize why that is, what is it that is blocking the opportunity to acquire that knowledge. To me it is amazing, that so many have been able to fight against it and do it. It is amazing.
Q: In the inner cities and rural communities of today, some rural communities.
A: Yes. And overcoming it is very hard. And one of the things that I point out to people in the white community is, Caucasians, I don’t think that they fully appreciate the impact of what I call racism and discrimination in impacting successive generations for so many hundred years. If you stop and think about it, generation after generation after generation. It is one of the worst things that could happen to a people.
Because it starts when you are a slave and then you get emancipation, but then you get Jim Crow and then you get lynching. You keep going. And they say, pull yourself up by our bootstraps. You have been successively demeaned. And that is people need to understand that this is not just a desired position or situation. It has been successive impacts, especially racist, which have produced the problems. Now having said that has there been progress? Yes. Enough? Heck, no. I have an example which is in the – I think it is in the speech, but I will tell you the one that the audience loves…
END OF PART 1